Two good things came out of going to Hanoi Social Club this week. One was seeing Big Man and Bear, a fantasticly captivating folky duo performing on the rooftop. The second was befriending a fellow named John, who happened to have a brother in Asheville, North Carolina that is the head cook at Early Girl, a breakfast joint I've actually been to before.
On Saturday, I went on Facebook and saw that John was getting a group together for a Star Wars viewing. I'd seen it already but was hungry for another taste. We met at Royal City, a building earning its title as the largest mall in Vietnam. It houses the largest indoor water park in Southeast Asia as well as the first ice-skating rink in Vietnam.
WARNING: Slight Star Wars spoilers ahead.
The film was even better the second time around, even if essentially a reboot of A New Hope. We had a nice and nerdy chat about it after, where I saw this cool display.
After, we discussed what to do next and decided on a restaurant on West Lake, the expat area. I had taken a taxi there and asked if I could hitch a ride with someone on their motorbike. A fellow named George I had met earlier said I could go with him as he had an extra helmet. He had short curly hair and wore purple pants, thick black-rimmed glasses, a grey cardigan and teal Converse. I hopped on back in the labyrinthine underground parking lot and after slowly ascending the ramp with all the power of 100 cubic centimeters, we launched into the night-time traffic like the red Ferrari from Ferris Bueller.
I previously described driving in Hanoi in my last post but it's worth revisiting. There are few cars on the road, most of which are taxies, and the rest are motorbikes. Inside Hanoi there are no traffic lanes, stop signs or traffic lights. The few traffic lights that do exist (along highways) are mostly ignored by motorbikes, illustrated by this shirt which I made it my mission to acquire.
Bikes go anywhere necessary to get where they're going and you have to be keep an ever-vigilant eye on absolutely everything, though most times you aren't going fast due to the density of traffic.
A shot of traffic in Hanoi. Sorry for the clickbaity title.
The locals, who often ride three or more up on a bike, do not hold on to anything. On the back of the bike is the oft-ignored handle, something I view as my one vestige of safety. You never know when a pothole will crop up or a gearshift will kick particularly hard. At one point the light turned red and we blew through it. "Do as the locals do", uttered George.
This spurred a series of conversations at obeyed red lights with William, another guy that was joining us, about how basically no traffic laws exist in Vietnam. We came to a roundabout and cut left instead of right. "See, like ignoring roundabouts". And it made sense; there was no one there and once you remove the threat of a $100+ traffic ticket, wouldn't you do the same?
We arrived at West Lake, heading westbound along the southern shore. I could see the lit-up Nhật Tân Bridge across the lake, and next to it was a glowing Ferris Wheel. We weaved in between cars and were going pretty fast by that point. I distinctly remember thinking, If only my Mom could see me now, she would be a nervous wreck.
Suddenly, a couple appeared in front of us and I had enough just enough time to think, Oh god, we're going to hit them. And then we did.
The next thing I knew, I was lying on the pavement. I immediately got up and ran over to the couple, knowing they were much worse off. The couple, a girl and a boy looking to be about 20, were still laying on the ground and not attempting to get up. I bent down to see how bad the injuries were and see a small pool of blood behind the girl's head. A horrified Oh my god escapes my lips. You want it to not be real, to hit rewind, to wake up, anything besides this.
I want to help, to do something, ANYTHING. A crowd of Vietnamese has already formed and are looking over the two. They speak their language and, for a city that must deal with this kind of thing often, I quickly reason that they are better equipped to handle the situation than I.
I look at the boy and see a cut under his chin. He is shook up and hurt but seems less severe. I turn back to the girl and she is looking up in my direction with a pained and perplexed expression, the frame of her glasses broken, a spiderweb of blood growing on her forehead. I have no medical training and feel so incredibly helpless.
I ask if someone has called an ambulance, making the gesture of a phone and holding it up to my face. No one understands or responds. A taxi pulls up and a group lifts the girl into the back. I wonder if moving her is a good idea - I seem to remember that moving something with a neck injury or concussion could make things worse, but I have no way to communicate this and before I can the cab has left. A local guy comes up to me and says (in English) that I need to talk with an ambassador and go to the hospital with of them. I only say okay; I'm still in shock.
George walks up and I ask if he is okay. He says he is and asks if I am. I hadn't noticed until then, but the meaty part of my right palm beneath the thumb - the thenar it seems - is swollen and in pain. I can move all my fingers so I figure it's not a big deal. Meanwhile a woman in a houndstooth coat and earmuffs yells at George in Vietnamese.
The boy is loaded into another taxi but no one asks me to go with him. I'm not sure what the right thing to do is - go to the hospital or wait for police to show up? With the second cab gone, a couple of minutes have passed since the accident. I lean against a sign and, turning towards the lake, notice a spiderweb and maybe six spiders all on the same web. I can't tell if they are dead or alive. None of them move. Since when do multiple spiders inhabit a single web?
My gaze returns to the street. George's bike has been moved onto the sidewalk and traffic has resumed. My eyes stop on the puddles of blood in the street and a broken lens from the girl's glasses. Bikes pass by, running over the glass. It rocks back and forth.
A couple hours pass. In that time we wait for police that don't show, head to the police station to find an officer in the lime green uniform and slippers, only to be told the police are at the scene, where we return. Mostly I am silent, replaying the incident over and over, unable to stop seeing that look on the girl's face. I am thinking about her and the boy, hoping their injuries are not serious. There is nothing to say, really. I tell George it was an accident and not to beat himself up too much.
I learn that the local that had been speaking to us in English had actually been walking with the couple and somehow escaped being hit. He made the phone calls, kept us up to date on what was happening and more than anything had a very calm demeanor as if nothing much had happened. He seemed to be the same age, early 20's. Between calls I ask if has heard anything about them, but it's a chaotic scene and there is a period of not knowing which hospital or clinic they went to. Eventually more police, dressed in civilian clothes, arrive and they sketch a diagram of what happened onto graph paper. Forms are filled out that look more like handouts from a school teacher than official police documents. Most of the attention is focused on George. All that is asked of me is whether I was driving, my name and my birthday. I am not asked to sign anything, which I am thankful for because it's a foreign country and the forms are all in Vietnamese, so I wouldn't know exactly what I was signing, which makes me nervous.
This all happens next to a vendor who is roasting corn on a small grill. During the paperwork process, locals and police drink hot tea and smoke. Some even laugh watching a video on a phone. My face is grave, still replaying the incident and feeling horrible about the whole thing. A local man takes a long drag off his cigarette and gets my attention. "Is no problem". I don't know if he is referring to the kids or us.
A little later the third guy, our translator, gets a call and tells us that they are okay and the injuries aren't bad, which is an enormous relief. After loading up George's motorbike onto the police truck, which they will keep to inspect for a few days, we are told that we can go.
Initially I was thinking of hanging around Hanoi for a while, renting an apartment for a month or so. I even had a perfect opportunity with new friends come up. But Hanoi might be too chaotic for me. In a week I'd seen three accidents, and been in one of them.
Update: My hand is fine, and the couple had stitches.